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Santa Rosa is hiring a special investigator to look into complaints by residents who say they’ve been misled by petition gatherers trying to get rent control overturned.

City officials say they’re doing so because District Attorney Jill Ravitch has said, contrary to their initial understanding, that her office “will not take on that role.”

Interim City Attorney Teresa Stricker said she’s been “round and round” this week with Ravitch’s office over who’s jurisdiction such crimes are, and the decision was ultimately made for the city to investigate the complaints.

“We think it’s important that issues of alleged election fraud are investigated,” Stricker said. “Since there seems to be no other alternative, so we’re going to deal with it.”

The city had received 93 complaints by Friday from residents claiming that they were misled by petition gatherers and mistakenly signed in support of a referendum to overturn the city’s recently passed rent control law.

The city is telling those who want their names removed from such petitions to send a signed letter making that request to City Clerk Daisy Gomez. The city also previously instructed residents interested in filing a complaint of election fraud to contact the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office or the Secretary of State’s Office, saying it did so after speaking to both those agencies.

But after a Sept. 9 Press Democrat article outlined that guidance, Ravitch clarified that it was not her office’s place to field such complaints.

“We have an investigative bureau, but they are not first responders,” Ravitch said. “We don’t go out and collect the information. We don’t have the resources, and that’s not our role.”

Ravitch said her deputy held a meeting with city officials last week and explained that residents reporting voter fraud should call the relevant law enforcement agency where the crime allegedly took place.

In most cases, that’s the Santa Rosa Police Department, but it could also be the Santa Rosa College District Police, since some complaints stem from people gathering petitions on campus.

Ravitch said district attorneys in larger counties can conduct a broader array of investigations, but her office isn’t staffed for that.

Her 14 investigators take the lead in specialized matters like child abductions and Brown Act violations of public meetings, and at times will partner with law enforcement agencies to conduct sting operations in contractor fraud cases, she said. They also respond to officer involved shootings and conduct a wide range of duties to help move cases toward prosecution, she said.

But allegedly misrepresenting the nature of a referendum to obtain signatures is not the kind of crime for which her office would initiate an investigation, she said.

Local law enforcement, including the junior college police, are qualified to handle such cases, she said. If they ask for help, her investigators, most whom are former peace officers, can be brought in to assist, she said.

Stricker said initial complaints should be made to the nonemergency police line, and those complaints will be forwarded to a special investigator for follow-up. She said the investigator will work under her supervision and will need special training that police officers don’t normally receive.

“This isn’t what they do. Election fraud isn’t really a police matter,” Stricker said.

She said the investigator would decide which cases should be forwarded to the district attorney for prosecution, a decision that would be entirely up to Ravitch’s office.

Councilman Gary Wysocky said he felt Ravitch seemed to be ducking her responsibility to look into a serious pattern of voter fraud.

“To me, ballot issues are significant. They are core to our democratic process,” Wysocky said.

“With all the reports of fraud that I have heard, and from personal experience, there are some real problems going on right now in our town.”

Wysocky, who supported the rent control law narrowly passed by the council last month, said voter fraud cases struck him as the kind of specialized investigations for which rank and file officers don’t typically receive training.

“I would hope that (DA investigators) would be up to speed on election law more than our patrol officers,” Wysocky said.

In an email to Ravitch, Wysocky urged Ravitch to “do the right thing” and conduct an investigation.

“It is one thing to wage an open and honest campaign in our democratic system. It is quite another to allow deceit and intimidation to rule the referendum process,” he wrote.

Petition gatherers started appearing outside supermarkets and other busy spots around the city shortly after the Aug. 30 City Council vote enacting restrictions on rent increases and eviction protections.

The law goes into effect Sept. 30. Petition gatherers need to obtain and present to the City Clerk 8,484 signatures from verified registered voters to force the City Council to either repeal the law or to send the issue to the voters for a referendum.

No group has claimed responsibility for the effort, but the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords and claims rent control is bad public policy, has made it clear it intends to make an issue of rent control in the upcoming City Council race.

The group said it wouldn’t comment on the petition drive, but last week the association’s political action committee donated $25,000 to an independent expenditure committee called Citizens for Economic and Affordable Housing Solutions. Election filings indicate the entity was formed to support council candidate Don Taylor, owner of Omelette’s Express.

The campaign officers of the committee were listed as Daniel Sanchez, the director of government affairs for the North Bay Association of Realtors, and Mallori Spilker, executive director of the North Coast office of the statewide apartment association.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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